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Fragments from memory: THE LONG STRIDES OF PATRIOTS

Posted May 29th. 2006 - by Moses V. Nagamootoo

For me, two events during 1966 stand out as eternally memorable: my country was given independence; and I won the heart of the girl who was to become my wife.

Since then, it seemed, my two loves have been country and spouse - the first I loved longest, the other, best.

At independence, I had just passed my 18 milestone. I was too young to vote in the last (1964) elections before Independence. And I would not qualify to vote either when the first (1968) post-independence elections were held.

My age then would suggest that in the years leading to independence, I could not possibly lay claim to being a freedom fighter. I did not endure prison in colonial Guyana for our freedom, nor did I bear arms against the British.

The agitation and stirrings for independence that became manifest with the advent of Cheddi Jagan in parliamentary politics in 1947, the year of my birth, were to be inscribed on the banner of the People's Progressive Party (PPP). That party had become the territory's first authentic mass-based movement for national liberation and, in spite of its tragic fragmentation, it was to remain the pace-setter for freedom.

As I cast my memories back into the shadows of our past, as far as I could remember, I shared Cheddi Jagan's passion for my country to be free. Cheddi Jagan was for me not only the symbol of honest struggles, but he was also the reason for my entry into the country's political life. This I want to say without equivocation.

There were others like LFS Burnham who also wanted independence but on special terms, that excluded 18-year-old like me from voting, and a priori rejected any electoral outcome that would make Cheddi Jagan the country's Prime Minister. Independence had to come as a coveted prize for opportunism!

PATRIOTS

When I joined the PPP's campaign in 1961, my young feet shuffled to keep pace with the long strides of sincere patriots in the villages, the great majority of whom would remain unknown and unrecognized - even after 40 years. They were in every protest and in every march, and by that sacrifice, they gave independence a meaning that it was something worth fighting for.

From an early age, I was influenced and moved by an incongruous blend of political rhythms: in my church by biblical episodes of a revolutionary Moses and a defiant Christ; on the village road by celebration of the epic struggles of India, and the independence of Ghana, and the daily heroic battles in my immediate environment against the hold the sugar estates had on workers'lives, which was repulsed by bitter sentiments, if not disdain, for British rule.

It was easy, as I grew up in condition of relative poverty and want, to feel that the answer to all problems was home-rule.

It was therefore not my age that brought me into struggle. It was the way that I inexorably embraced the idea of national liberation.

AMBITION

I might have shared a grand vision of what being free meant for our country, in the context of an early but evolving education about de-colonialisation and the end of empires. Somehow though, at the age of 14 or thereabout, I thought that freedom made sense if only it could give definition to the ambition of village lads like myself.

In a simple but idealistic way then, I understood what independence meant: a chance for children of my age not to be forced to become cane-cutters or fish-catchers like our parents and elder siblings; resources to build a playfield and recreational centre, and a library in our village so we could escape from the mud and squalor of village life; better earnings for our parents to be able to send us to school in decent clothes and foot-wear, and to allow us to qualify as teachers and nurses or, when the time came, as recruits into the armed forces of our country.

I was born during 1947 - the year India won independence, and was fed the nectar of this sweet word "swaraj". On India's Independence Day, I had joined the celebratory march from Whim to Bloomfield, donning white "nehru's caps" and waving tiny Indian flags pasted on brittle broom-sticks, and singing, "Jai Hind! Jai Hind! Jai Jai Jai Hind". Then, as early as 1958, my father and I shared the enthusiasm of African villagers on the Road March from Alness to Lancaster, singing "Ghana, Ghana is my name", symbolizing African's unfolding liberation from colonialism.

In 1961 I was in the procession celebrating the victory of the PPP in that elections. That motorcade was for me not the celebration of an event, but the beginning of a long ride on the freedom train.

COLD WAR

Sadly, as time went by, the fight for independence was reduced to "cold war" trading at the British Colonial Office and America's State Department, and at home, to violent destabilizing and pulpit propagandizing.

My initial fight was against expatriate priests who had desecrated my church with pulpit politics that was nothing short of hate for Jagan and the PPP. They circulated anti-communist books and tracts which my friends and I violently purged from the vestries at Whim and New Amsterdam. For standing up to the blasphemous propaganda, I was branded a "hooligan", which was why I walked from my church, never to set foot in it again!

When I joined the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO), I did so under a slogan "Independence and Socialism". Little did I know then that the fight would be diverted to deal with internal terrorism and dislocation.

When the violence broke out, the PYO organized us into vigilante groups to defend our villages. I felt that I was among soldiers of our people. We prepared for revolutionary self-defence. I was among the small bands that were training in the backdam under the moonlight, holding aloof guns made from the branches of the sand-koker tree. We learned discipline and knew how to march and salute. We learned endurance by heading off to the sea-shore where we waded into waist-deep mud, holding a single air rifle above our head.

During 1963-64, we kept guard at our village gate, looking out for terrorists. I was among lads who were to receive our Batons from the Governor at the Whim Magistrate's court.

The hardest time for me was when my uncle David and my parents would receive large numbers of "displaced" persons, who had escaped from the racial violence. I helped to spread rice-bags on our landing, and elsewhere, for persons to sleep and eat, while my uncle made plans to send them elsewhere to re-settle. We blamed the British for the mayhem and for the collective fear of our people. That was why, whenever we could, we would harass British soldiers. The favourite haunt of the "Limeys" were the brothels in Rose Hall. Once on a "mission" I came back with more than a packet of Clippers cigarettes!

DETAINEES

The period leading up to independence saw several PPP and PYO militants in detention without trial at Sibley Hall. They were political prisoners, and a countrywide campaign was carried out for their release. I took part in a "Free Detainees Ride" on bicycles from Crabwood Creek to Georgetown, but turned back from the Unity cricket ground, as I had to return to my work as a teacher in Port Mourant.

I went everywhere the independence fight took us, at rallies on the Corentyne - the largest of which was when Anthony Greenwood visited - and, in a countrywide march. None of those acts would have made any impact on how independence was finally handed down to the Guyanese rulers. But for me they were worth a thousand lifetime to share the collective heart-beat of patriots who wanted above anything else the freedom of country from foreign rule. Even if it were possible then to predict the outcome, our patriots would have knowingly welcomed our own brand of political brigands, who took over eventually, than to endure the shame of foreign yoke.

On the eve of May 26, 1966, when the Golden Arrowhead was hoisted in National Park, I was glued to my radio, taking in the emotions of the birth of our nation. The next day, I sat in Tara's shop, outside the Whim market, watching a procession go by. It was a sad irony that the revelers who shouted my name and called on me to join them, were opposed to independence. But I would have nevertheless joined had it not been that at that time many of our comrades were still locked away in Sibley Hall.

Our justifiable posture was, as enunciated by the jailed C.V. Nunes, "Independence Yes, Celebrations No!"

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